A Piece of the Action

Rachel Feder interviews Sarah Knott about her new book, "Mother Is a Verb: An Unconventional History."

A Piece of the Action

SARAH KNOTT HAS PUBLISHED widely on British and American history. In her latest book, Mother Is a Verb: An Unconventional History, she turns to a broad audience and steps into the frame, interweaving her personal experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood into a capacious account of maternity. Drawing on her impeccable research skills, Knott carries readers in and out of scenes of maternal activity from Britain and North America and from across the 17th century to the 20th. In so doing, she defines “mother” as a verb, as a series of actions undertaken at different times and places, actions that leave a fleeting, piecemeal record. An associate professor of History and Kinsey Institute Research Fellow at Indiana University, Knott is ending a fellowship year in her native Britain at the University of Oxford. Navigating time changes and nap schedules, we discussed her gorgeous reinvention of maternal memoir.


RACHEL FEDER: You and I met at the Center for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Indiana University’s annual workshop two years ago. We were both writing books about motherhood that hybridized the research and writing styles associated with our respective disciplines with forays into other genres — memoir, lyric essay, or maybe something else entirely. I was traveling with a baby in tow, so felt in hybrid form myself — and, indeed, your gorgeous book finds me doubled again, in the second trimester of my second pregnancy. My question, then: What is it about the subject of motherhood that invites formal hybridity? Why step into the frame here, as opposed to somewhere else?

SARAH KNOTT: A second pregnancy, the imminence of what one 19th-century letter-writer called the “double shuffle”: congratulations, Rachel! These are the throes of precisely those experiences I was most concerned to historicize in Mother Is a Verb, and that map through your Harvester of Hearts.

Why formal hybridity? My discipline is history, and my interest was in exploring the many pasts of pregnancy, birth, and the encounter with an infant. Yet the conventional apparatus of history writing did not always serve that exploration. I’m thinking of how history privileges change over time, tends toward narrative, and adopts the third-person voice. But the minute shards of evidence we have about the visceral experiences of maternity — the small anecdotes, the fragments of scenes — work against the creation of grand narratives of change over time. Meanwhile, the distancing third-person voice leads away from the intimacy of the subject, prevents certain kinds of questions from being asked, or certain topics noticed.

So I found myself switching change over time for variety of experience, shifting from narrative to anecdote, and embracing a first-person voice.

Simplest put, I came to think of the book as what happens when a historian writes maternal memoir.

In the book, you write that the

telling of anecdotes […] is a peculiarly powerful means of moving between History with a capital H — the institution of slavery, the rise of industrialization, revolutionary ideology — and the mundane stuff of living with an infant. Anecdotes offer the rare opportunity to interpret different kinds of scenes, remarks, or objects that illuminate being with an infant, even where there is no continuous record, and the tiny archival traces that are left usually appear minor or inconsequential. 

This got me thinking about gender and genre. Can an anecdotal history, a history of the quotidian, give us fresh access to women’s lives at different times, in different places? And, how has your relationship to the everyday changed since you became a mother? 

A particular kind of access, certainly. The London psychoanalyst and theorist Lisa Baraitser suggests that anecdote should be our data point for maternity. A small child continually breaks into maternal speech, precluding narrative, and preventing sustained reflection. Sentences are stopped short, or trail off. Baraitser’s insight illuminated all the broken-off letters I read by women of the literate and more leisured classes. “Baby is stirring so I must stop,” reads one 1881 letter from the family manuscripts in the Wylie House, close by where I live in Bloomington. That anecdote can be valuable data also suggested a way to bring a wider range of archival fragments — from government reports, or sociological interviews with ordinary women, or brief asides in slave narratives — onto a single interpretive plane. Historians of enslaved people or the working classes have long known that we need to make fragments count. They have long been experimental.

It’s no surprise that maternity, if not gender per se, might require its own genre. Nearly a century ago, Virginia Woolf suggested in her Cambridge lectures that a woman writer with children on hand should turn to the forms of the novel or nonfiction prose rather than the play or the poem. More recently, anecdote defines literary ventures in maternal memoir, from the dreamy evocations of Louise Erdrich to the stringent precision of Rachel Cusk or Maggie Nelson. So I came to see that a history of maternity might itself serialize and accumulate and juxtapose and contrast anecdote, in order to arrive at a fuller interpretation.

That was the kind of history I could imagine being able to write, too, in an everyday of my own that was sleepless and piecemeal. Not the high-minded and sharp-edged abstractions of my usual academic thinking.

I was fascinated by how these methodologies allowed you to move in and out of your own subject position — to pluralize, to specify, to bring distant stories home to personal experience, to illuminate fragments of past experiences for your readers. I’m also interested in the issues and questions this methodology might raise. For example, there’s a moment of mystery that stuck with me, from your section on naming:  

We don’t know what happened to Dinah, a twenty-year-old woman who tried to free herself by running away from the city [Philadelphia] “with the last of the British troops” when she was “big with child, and near the time of her lying-in.” Was her infant born safely, and how did she name the two of them?

What are the implications and potentials of considering your own process of naming your eldest alongside the mystery of Dinah’s fate? Does your book invite us to reconsider motherhood as a transhistorical community, and, if not, then how do you understand your own experience within the plurality of experiences you present?

To pluralize and to specify was exactly my intent. I was borrowing the phrase, the enticing request, from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Queer scholarship, I found, had exactly the confidence that past embodiments might be radically distinctive from our own and from each other: among people of the Ojibwe or Miami nations, for example, or tenement dwellers in Jewish New York, or white farm servants in Essex. Or enslaved and free black people, as in the case of a heavily pregnant young woman making a desperate bid for freedom in the late 18th century.

About “motherhood,” I’m with Adrienne Rich, who in 1976 understood the term to mean ideology or institution. Hence the book’s title: I was interested not in maternity as an ideal, or as an identity or occupation but rather mother as a verb. Mothering. That lets go, I think, of any notion of motherhood as a transhistorical community. Mother as a verb helps us notice mothering as a set of activities always being undertaken among other activities. First, conceiving, carrying, miscarrying, birthing. Then — with a change of personnel, not all birth-givers becoming mothers, and not all mothers or caregivers being birth-givers — holding, sleeping (not sleeping), feeding, and so on. Patricia Hill Collins helpfully gave us “othermothering,” a term for dispersed mothering that points up a range of past practices beyond mother-as-occupation.

Treating mother as a verb was also a response to changes in our own day — to stick with your query about community across time. I was thinking about how mothering is to some extent up for grabs today. Think of gay couples working with a surrogate, queer families with an infant, trans men contemplating chest feeding, or the egalitarian parenting of infants in working families.

As to my own experiences among this plurality, my intent was for their specificity to appear, decentered, through the accumulation of others. We hardly need another account that recenters maternity on white middle-class womanhood, on the “good” mother of so much past and contemporary ideology. I hope readers concur — though I’m struck that reviews in the press were universally accompanied by paintings, pictures, and photos of white mothers and infants. Write “mother” and it seems that author, reader, and topic are as one in a relentless whiteness. Ideology is stubborn.

Near the book’s conclusion, you write:

The historical materials I garner offer no manifesto for the carrying and caring of an infant. Perhaps I am not the manifesto-writing type. I am wary of a politics grounded in the authority and experience of mothers, maternalism looking like feminism for conservative times. But I might be wrong about that. Switch the noun to a verb, the identity of “mother” to the act of “mothering,” and the prospect looks rather different. A defense of caring under late capitalism, uttered by caregivers of every persuasion — adoptive, biological, and employed; female, male, lesbian, gay, trans, and the rest — could be a wide coalition indeed. The twenty-first century keeps shifting under our feet.

Can you say more about what this “defense of caring” might look like? Does it resemble a broad, inclusive definition of reproductive justice, or is it something else? 

Caregiving is invisible and neglected under contemporary capitalism. We need caring to be made visible and writ large. One part of this is reproductive justice, yes: I think of diminishing abortion rights, for example, or contrasting black and white maternal mortality rates. I think of the imperative for universal health care, a need that seems obvious if you grew up under Britain’s National Health Service, as I did. I’ve been living in England again this year, and it’s a relief to walk into a G.P.’s office without signing paperwork or expecting a bill, and to be treated as a patient.

A defense of caregiving — in an economy hell-bent on seeing us only as workers and consumers — strikes me as yet more capacious than reproductive justice. Recently I’ve been reading more about the demands of second-wave feminism: well-paid, universal child care, for example. Sarah Stoller has done wonderful research, published in History Workshop Journal, about how 1970s women’s liberationists of a variety of stripes agreed on what was needed. But many politicians and business leaders have paid little heed to these sound feminist insights. And now we need to stitch the caring defense of our living planet, and the raising of resilient children able to navigate change, into this feminism.

I’ve also been reading sociologists such as Shani Orgad and Caitlyn Collins who study public policy and the contemporary workplace. There’s a long history to recognizing the demands and the social value of carrying and caring. I think we benefit from seeing these not as individuated, private dilemmas, caused by a person’s “choice” to have a child, but as social issues that concern us all.

We’ve touched on some of the reasons why your book is so important, but haven’t really gotten to what makes it such a delight. I loved how your lyrical, anecdotal style allowed you to notice acts of mothering across times, places, and cultures without universalizing, romanticizing, or retreating into the sentimental. What was so poetic, to me, was the way that noticing itself shone forth as an act at once ethical and aesthetic. (To quote Adrienne Rich, who you’ve invoked, “the moment of change is the only poem.”) Can you say a bit more about the project, and your process, from a literary perspective? 

The act of noticing, as you aptly put it, is the book’s mode. There’s a twin attention in play here: noticing one’s own or an infant’s visceral needs (the attempt to survive and thrive), and noting the archival traces of scenes in the past. Both focus on what is small and fleeting. One form of attention was new to me, the other was a particular way of doing my work. I’ve been a historian my whole adult life. I like the demands for evidence and for rigor, and I’m convinced that the past is a resource — not in some how-to way, or as means of uncovering human universals, but as a living world that bears down on our own. Words like “firking,” “nidgeting,” and “scrouging” have come and gone; others like “quickening” have altered in content or in familiarity. Actions — even the simple action of responding to an infant cry — have changed in meaning or feel or in who is responsible. I find that exhilarating.

That the ghost of Adrienne Rich hovers over our conversation to its very end seems entirely appropriate. As both an essayist and a poet, Rich is part of our archive of mothering. She knew that our understanding of maternity would continue to shift, often quickly. When Of Woman Born was reprinted, in an anniversary edition of 1986, she documented a decade’s adjustment and revelation of understanding. The change goes on. I sense the datedness of 1976 and 1986, both, in her emphasis on maternal ambivalence as the sine qua non of mothering, or in the stability of the category of “woman.” And I admire the vibrancy of her politics, the determination for concrete structural change, and the effort, if incomplete, to grapple more properly with class and race.

I like to think that history can sometimes do what poetry does: furnish us with new words, or precise formulations, that make apprehension leap.


Rachel Feder writes poetry and prose and teaches at the University of Denver.

LARB Contributor

Rachel Feder writes poetry and prose and teaches at the University of Denver.


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